So it goes like this. I am a reporter. If it’s a crime story, I arrive at the scene of the alleged crime after the fact. Based on survivor and eyewitness testimonies as also my snooping below the radar, I try to stitch up a credible account. Often, such a report ends up, shall we say, disagreeing substantively with the police’s version. That’s the job.
On the night of 13 September, I had a once-in-a-reporter’s-lifetime episode. I witnessed a crime. Or rather, an alleged crime. I was one of the three people who were the first to come face-to-face with a young man on the run less than two hours before he died.
And of the three, I’m the only one left free to tell the truth as the police have arrested my two co-witnesses for his death after detaining them illegally for three days. This, despite the fact that I repeatedly told various police officers that night the sequence of what had happened. I recounted the chronology to the dead man’s family, too, the next morning.
Based on my firsthand involvement in this sad story, I can vouch that my two co-witnesses did not “murder” Anmol Sarna, the man we confronted that night near my apartment, who later died of head wounds at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
A 20-year-old non-resident Indian (NRI) from the US living in New Delhi since January, Sarna was struck with a “blunt object” on his head and beaten badly, doctors who tended him said. But I positively saw no head wounds when the police took him.
Here is my account of what happened.
Around 11.15 pm on 13 September, I heard a man screaming behind my ground-floor flat in South Park Apartments, a housing complex in South Delhi’s Kalkaji area. At first, I put it down to a likely house quarrel. But in a while, it grew more urgent and closer.
Constructed by the Delhi Development Authority in 1989, these are a total of 156 duplex apartments in eight separate blocks of four floors each. The blocks are laid out as parallel strips, two to every arm of the perimeter of a squarish estate. A park sits in the middle of the complex. The strips of parallel blocks face away from each other separated by service lanes. The inner blocks face the park. The outer look outwards. The blocks don’t connect at the corners. There is a gate on the perimeter’s every arm.
The man was screaming his lungs out with a rat-a-tat caterwaul of two words: “Chikki Madhav”. I would later find out that these were names of two of his friends he had been reportedly partying with that night in a second-floor flat in the block behind mine. At times, he swore heavily in choicest Hindi aiming it at no one in particular.
I phoned the security guard at a gate on the intercom. He asked me to call another gate. Mishra, a gaunt sexagenarian with grey hair who I have come to know well in my five-month stay there, answered my call. Someone here is making trouble, I told him. Come quickly. Shortly, Mishra and a security guard named Surendra Bali, a 40-something balding five-feet-nothing, turned up. Both had night sticks.
I stepped out my door. By now, the troublemaker had gone up a staircase in the block behind mine. Mishra and Bali hurried up. I followed. In a flash, the screamer, Anmol Sarna, jumped before me on the halfway landing. He was bare-chested and bare feet, and wore only knee-length beige shorts. He was tall, perhaps 6 feet, and hefty. He glistened in profuse sweat. There was no blood or any visible wound on him.
He and I stood a foot apart for a second. And then he swung his right arm at me. I ducked. His open palm landed on my forehead. He pushed me aside and ran down the stairs, and then into the service lane between the two blocks, flailing his arms high in the air, screaming, “Chikki Madhav, Chikki Madhav, Chikki Madhav, Chikki Madhav…”
Mishra, Bali and I ran after him. Some 100 metres later, he came out the service lane and stopped, turned, and glared at us. We stopped too, panting. This time, Sarna swung his left hand and smacked Mishra’s cheek. I screamed in Hindi: “Stop him!” But the two guards were already hitting him with their sticks. Instead of running away, Sarna closed his hands together. His elbows touched his chest. His clenched fists covered his face. Sarna was incoherent again. I could see he was absolutely tripping mentally.
I ran to fetch other guards. I tried calling one of the police officers from the names painted on a board. His phone was switched off. A third guard and I ran back to the spot. No more than two minutes had passed. About five other people had collected. The guards were aside. Sarna was lying on the ground on his back, babbling incoherently. There was blood on his chest, arms and shoulders. But none above the neck.
From this moment, no one touched Sarna. For the next half hour or so, he continued screaming “Chikki Madhav” interspersed with swear words. The crowd swelled to about 15 people, including a few women. People were trying to call the police. No one seemed to know him. Twice he jumped to his feet and sprinted to a gate. I followed him the first time. He clasped the iron grills of that gate and swung his head at it, screaming. I watched from about 10 feet. He fell on his back, raised his legs in the air, and kept yelling.
Meanwhile, a security guard remembered that this man was a visitor at flat No. 95. Presently, its householder was brought down. When I confronted him, he said he did not know this man, who, he said, was a friend of his son’s friend. He admitted that Sarna had possibly taken drugs. He appeared worried and kept calling the police.
At this point, Sarna suddenly ran back from the gate to where the guards had first beaten him. After some more of the same routine, he again ran up to the gate. By now, he was visibly tiring. He began to walk back slowly, not screaming but growling incoherently, leaning on a car or two. Halfway, he stopped and lay down, propping his head against the wall of a flat.
Enter the Police Control Room (PCR) van. Two policemen walked up to Sarna and exchanged a few words. One gave him a hand. He stood up. Sobering now, he checked his shorts. He walked unaided to the back of the PCR van and sat at the back. None of us still knew his name. This was the last I saw him. From about four feet. His hands seemed to be convulsing. But he had no blood or wound on his head or face.
Four hours later, security guard Mishra woke me up. The police wanted to see me. A sub-inspector in a police jeep told me Sarna was dead. This was shocking. He was nowhere near death the last I saw him. Had he had a severe head wound, blood would have flown like tap water. But there was no blood trail, only blood on a few cars and at the spot where he was first beaten.
I saw the sub-inspector drive away with four guards, who they would keep in illegal detention for three days before charging two for his death. Over three hours, I repeated this account to — in ascending order of seniority — a constable, a head constable, a sub-inspector, Kalkaji Police Station House Officer Brijinder Singh, and Assistant Commissioner of Police Usha Rangnani. They even came inside my house.
Around 7 am, Sarna’s father and sisters came over. I offered my condolences and faithfully narrated the above account. That’s about as much as I could do.
Yet, the guards languish in jail.